Casual labour, Paula Morris

Paula Morris spurns “fulltime-writer” status

Next time you wander into a bookshop and start rowsing, turn directly to the author’s brief biography – possibly on the back cover, or a few pages into the book. If the novel in question is by a New Zealand author, you may be told the following: “So-and-so is a fulltime writer.” Perhaps this information will reassure you. Perhaps you don’t want to buy a book by one of those dreadful part-time writers – you know, like Kafka or Anthony Trollope. Maybe you need to know that the author has achieved sufficient commercial success to make fiction-writing a fulltime occupation. Commercial success, like winning Lotto, is the usual precursor to giving up the day-job, after all.

Nabokov may, for example, have been employed as a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University when he published his 12th novel, Lolita, but the latter’s commercial success – and the author’s profit-share in Kubrick’s film adaptation – enabled him to retire from the academic life. Nabokov loved his job, but said that “around 60, and especially in the winter, one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching, the getting up at a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle with snow in the driveway.”

In a market as small as ours, however, fulltime doesn’t always mean a secure annual income. Some authors who announce their fulltime status on book jackets have earned far more from Creative New Zealand grants than in royalties; some support a life of writing with a life of government benefits. Others have a spouse with a steady income, or a family which is supportive in more ways than one.

None of the above are bad things: most of us would be happy with a large inheritance or two, or, say, a grant of Nobel-Prize proportions. And, of course, we can be “fulltime writers” without earning very much from our books at all. We can review and write features; we can give sponsored talks and reading tours; we can judge contests and assess manuscripts; we can appear at festivals and conduct master classes; we can win awards. (It’s a neat semantic sidestep: I was a fulltime writer in 1999, when I was a freelancer in New York, in that all my income derived from things I wrote, even though I hadn’t published a novel or any stories yet.) Anyway, how we pay the rent every month – royalties, a foreign rights sale, a big prize, an editing assignment, a sugar daddy – is nobody’s business but our own. Readers shouldn’t care if we’re broke or rolling in it, or if we consider ourselves fulltime. Did the author bio in Pale Fire read: “Vladimir Nabokov used to work at a university, but is now a fulltime writer”?

It did not. There’s something pathetic in the designation “fulltime writer” – it tries too hard, and manages to sound boastful and defensive at the same time. Like the contestants on game shows who stopped mumbling, “I’m just a housewife” and started declaring, “I’m a fulltime mother”, the self-pronounced fulltime writer knows what it’s like to work for no pay and get looked down on by others. By adding “fulltime” to our job title, we try to distinguish ourselves from all those hopeful part-timers, those hobbyists and dilettantes, those amateur writers scribbling in their spare time. Fulltime means professional, committed, serious.

Fine, but wait a moment. Not every writer has enjoyed the charmed career of V S Naipaul, whose smug bio reads: “After four years at Oxford, he began to write, and he has followed no other profession.” Hemingway moved to Paris not simply to write in cafés but to work on assignment as a foreign correspondent; Faulkner and Fitzgerald both spent time unhappily employed in Hollywood because they needed the money. These were all writing jobs, it’s true, but the screenplay for Land of the Pharoahs, starring a pouting young Joan Collins, is not quite The Sound and the Fury.

Many authors have managed actual jobs and “serious” careers as writers. T S Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” when he was a graduate student (in New Zealand, this would probably mean a bad review in Landfall) and published Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, the same year he began work at Lloyds Bank in London. He was working there as a foreign exchange dealer when The Waste Land appeared in 1922, and only left in 1925 to move to a job in publishing at Faber and Gwyer. Franz Kafka spent 14 years at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, rising to the position of legal secretary, and wrote his stories and novels at night.

He would have produced more work as a “fulltime writer”, perhaps, but others manage to be prolific despite the demands of their jobs. Joyce Carol Oates has always taught at Princeton University while publishing around 60 novels and story collections – who can keep track? – as well as endless volumes of poetry and essay collections. Anthony Trollope, the author of 49 novels, was a high-ranked civil servant, working for more than 30 years in the Post Office. He wrote for three hours every morning, beginning at 5.30. An author, he said, “need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for 30 hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

Certainly, few writers spend all day slaving over a hot typewriter. Graham Greene’s work day was morning-only, and limited to 500 words; George Bernard Shaw and J G Ballard aimed for 1000, as does Sarah Waters. Alice Munro says she writes “every day unless it’s impossible,” starting “as soon as I get up and have made coffee and try[ing] to get two to three hours in before real life hauls me away.” Henry James’s daily routine in Venice apparently included breakfast at Florian’s, a salt-water bath, a morning stroll, lunch at Quadri, a few hours of writing, a long gondola ride, another walk, visits to friends, and then a return trip to Florian’s.

A poet’s work day can prove even less arduous. Billy Collins says that there’s “a lot of waiting around until something happens”. Most poets, he claims, “don’t write a poem a day. For me it’s a very sporadic activity. Until recently, I thought ‘occasional poetry’ meant that you wrote only occasionally.” Novelist Richard Ford contends that most contemporary fiction writers publish too much, anyway; he advocates spending “lavish periods away from writing” and says, “I never imagined I was in this business to break the writers’ land speed record, or to put up big numbers (except, I’ve hoped, big numbers of readers).”

These “periods away from writing” might be a year, or simply a few hours drifting in a gondola: the argument of the “fulltime writer” against part-timers like Joyce Carol Oates, who combine paid employment with a writing life, is that most writers need waiting-around time, thinking time, drinking time: it’s not all about daily word count or hours spent with a wet towel around the brow. And it’s true that many of us sometimes resent the time spent working for pay – I try to limit the two days I teach creative writing to exactly that, two days, without complete success – or long for more time to hang out in a salt-water bath, just dreaming.

But “fulltime” is a spurious distinction, implying that an author like Toni Morrison – only now, at 76, about to retire from Princeton – is somehow less committed to her writing life. Most American writers don’t play this game: they know that big advances or even a hit book rarely pays the bills for life. And now that so many writers in New Zealand are claiming fulltime status, how will the stakes be raised next? “So-and-So writes an average of 5000 words a day”, perhaps; or “Author X devotes 40 hours a week to his novels.” Maybe it’ll get even more explicit: “In 2006, Ms Author received $43,568 net in fiction-related earnings alone.” How tacky. It makes me glad I’m only part-time.


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